Inspiration from the Sea

Etta Wilson

Blogger:  Etta Wilson

Location: Books & Such client retreat, Monterey, Calif.

Weather: Grand

All summer I’ve been longing to go to the beach. Instead, I traveled to Minneapolis and St. Louis–about as mid-continent as you can get. Even if time had permitted, the beach we usually head to along the southern coast was having problems with tar balls, thanks to BP.

Now, here I am in one of the nation’s most beautiful seaside spots–Monterey, California. Not only do I have the gorgeous coastline scenery and sea breezes, but also sea creatures and birds are readily visible that I haven’t seen in a long time. Several of them even caw and bark all night long!

Of course, those of us in the world of books associate Monterey with John Steinbeck, the quintessential California author and winner of both the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath (a story about hard-bitten inlanders from Oklahoma heading for the sea and a better life in California–they hoped). 

At the recent Southern Festival of Books, juvenile author Louis Sachar was asked why he used a quote from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in his new YA book The Cardturner. He said he happened to be reading the novel again while he was writing his book and couldn’t resist including the following for his audience even though he had to justify it as being admired by an adult character:

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success.” (p. 248)

Interesting that Sachar was moved to share Steinbeck’s words with young readers, but an author’s inspiring words do live on from generation to generation. I wonder if part of Steinbeck’s great creative energy and advocacy for the poor didn’t flow his having lived close to the sea. There may be something about the natural force and rhythm of waves that inspire writers and artists to create great projects.

What strong stories created by writers who lived near the sea can you remember? I’m going on the Cannery Row tour now and think some more about Steinbeck.

9 Responses

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  1. Jack London’s THE SEA WOLF comes to my mind first. But from another perspective, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was an author who seemed to need such natural spaces nearby in order to function, and she does a marvelous job of conveying their effects in all of her writings.

    Then, again, my absolute favorite for impressions (if you cannot get to such places, yourself) is Antoine de Saint Exupery. His WIND, SAND AND STARS is so masterfully done, it is one of the few books I read over and over. My edition even has an introduction by Annne Morrow Lindbergh. They were great friends.

    And — oddly enough — both of these writers has a small book of wisdom that the reading public has refused to let go of. They are still bestsellers, and can be found in any bookstore. GIFT FROM THE SEA is Anne’s, and THE LITTLE PRINCE belongs to Saint Ex (as she referred to him). Which only goes to show that the universally good works seem to last longer than everything else. No matter what sort of package they come in. Maybe they have a way of helping people hear themselves think. Sort of like the sea.

    Of course, all of Jack London’s books are still on sale. But then, he’s nearly graduated into that elite circle we call the classics. Fun subject, Etta — enjoy your tour!

  2. Etta, the first ocean novel that came to mind in response to your question was OLD MAN AND THE SEA. My 1970’s writing teacher at UCLA, novelist Bernard Wolfe, had known Hemingway in both Paris and Cuba, and went on a rant one night about how Hemingway had taken a true event and ruined it. In real life, it turns out, the old man realized he could never get the fish home and cut it loose early on. (It’s possible Bernie suffered from some professional jealousy, but he sure didn’t like Hemingway.) Certainly this was a novel that linked poor people and the sea.

    Yet although the Monterey/Salinas area is called “Steinbeck Country,” GRAPES OF WRATH takes place in my neck of the (land-locked) woods (which hasn’t actually had any trees on it since the settlers cut them down for farms in the 1870’s). Linnell Camp (which Steinbeck used as a model for the government farm-labor camp at the end of the novel) sits less than a mile west of the junior high where I teach. It’s in the neighboring school district, but kids move freely back and forth across the line. The demographics have changed since I first came here, but the poverty is pretty much the same. In the late 1970’s, it was still 50% the children and grandchildren of the GRAPES OF WRATH migration. Now it is 95% the constituency of Cesar Chavez. So many of these kids are 14 years old and have never even seen the ocean. I’ll grant you that there is something about “creative energy” in a trip to the ocean, but when I look at the price of houses in Monterey today, I realize it costs a fortune to live in poverty in Monterey. For more reasonably priced poverty, visit the Central Valley.

  3. Salena Stormo says:

    What is it about the sea that makes dreamers into writers? I wonder if the romance of the sea and the tales of adventures and heroism bring out the best in writers? There is something magical about it. I have to admit I have a love for Nicholas Sparks books. He captures the every day life of living near the sea and allows readers to be drawn into this world of beauty and romance which he derives from the world around him.

  4. LeAnne Hardy says:

    How strongly Steinbeck’s words contrast with Saint James: Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly unspiritual, of the devil… But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit impartial and sincere. (Js 3:13-15, 17) I guess I would rather be “a failure” than “a success.”

  5. Judith Robl says:

    Isn’t it interesting? I’ve seen both the Atlantic and the Pacific. And neither holds any fascination for me. I love small running water, creeks, rivers, falls, etc. But the immensity of the sea is almost claustrophobic in its effect on me. I know that sounds oxymoronic, but that’s how I feel.

    Now a sea of grass or grain is another matter. Perhaps that’s because I’m a native Kansan.

  6. Etta Wilson says:

    Brian, surely you are employed by the Central Valley tourist association! Just kidding. Thanks for the info, and I am a lot wiser about Steinbeck and his inspiration after being in Monterey for a few days.

  7. Etta Wilson says:

    Yeah, Judith, let’s hear it for the heartland! While here in Monterey, I’ve been entranced by the sound of the ocean more than the sight. As I remember, there is much the same sound in the wind blowing across fields of grain–a la Willa Cather. One of those elemental sounds of nature wherever.

  8. Jeannette Stephens Rose says:

    In reply to the comment by D. Ann Graham: John Steinbeck used the Arvin Migrant Camp near Bakersfield, California for much of the inspiration for his novel “The Grapes of Wrath” The Library building from Arvin which still stands was used as the office for the manager in the scene where the Joad family enters the camp. Tom Collins was the manager of the Arvin camp and Steinbeck drew from Collin’s letters to the FSA about the camp, the Arvin Camp Committee minutes and the time he spent with Tom Collins visiting the squatter camps around Bakersfield and the Marysville Migrant Camp for background information in the novel he wrote in 1939. Tom Collins was used as a consultant on the movie. From the information I have learned from this era – John Steinbeck didn’t visit the Linell Camp until after he had written “The Grapes of Wrath” My Grandfather Jesse Oliver Stephens served on the Arvin Camp committee in 1936 when Steinbeck visited the camp Arvin Camp. John Steinbeck spent many hours with the Stephens and the Easttom families. Sherman Easttom’s family was thought to be a composite for the Joad Family even when the book first came out. Sherman Easttom was Jesse Oliver Stephen’s brother in law – married to his sister Mary Ethel Stephens. My maternal Grandparents Edgar Robert and Letha Oval Clark Surratt lived at the Linell camp from 1939 to 1941. My mother along with her five brothers and sisters lived there with their parents. The Stephens family also lived there in 1940 where Jesse Oliver Stephens served as a guard at Linell. My parents – Daniel Stephens and Geneva Surratt met at that camp and were married in 1944 in Vallejo, Calif. John Steinbeck was deeply affected very much by what he saw at the Linell camp and it affected him the rest of his life but from my studies of the era the camp at Linell did not play into his novel. Though it is entirely possible that the things he saw there may have influenced later novels.

  9. philip dean Becker says:

    intrested in more

    seems that shermon easttom was my great grandfather..herd many different storys about this story